Well, I was quite excited yesterday when I found out that BBC Food and Drink were going to do a section on food allergies and intolerances. I switched on, eager to see some coverage of the issue in the mainstream foodie media.
What greeted me, however, was William Sitwell inflating a bunch of helium balloons, presumably to illustrate the associated “bloated” feeling about which those with food intolerances often complain. He then went on to proclaim “as a child, I was intolerant of carrots” and proceeded to pose the view that the majority of food intolerances are akin to a kid disliking vegetables, i.e. plain old fashioned fussy eating. “We are awash with faddy diets and phony science” he states, in a tone that can only be described as patronisingly sardonic.
Now, I won’t deny that there are some people who will take up the latest dietary fads as readily as Kim Kardashian takes a selfie, but the assertions made on the programme were worryingly ill-informed, from the perspective of someone who has a genuine illness that means a gluten-free diet is not some kind of passing fad or weight loss craze, but a medical need. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, the only treatment for coeliac disease is a lifelong gluten free diet.
I was disappointed to hear such high profile chefs and journalists making such sweeping generalisations of such a complex issue. According to Sitwell, the only “genuine” cause for avoiding a certain food is an allergy, to which the reaction would be evident within minutes. No mention of coeliac disease whatsoever, which affects up to 1 in 100 people in the UK. A coeliac may not react to gluten immediately – in fact, it is rare for someone who has ingested gluten to react like that. The reaction may come within hours, or a day later, when the offending proteins have lodged their way into the digestive system. You might not be choking, fishing for your epi-pen and ringing 999, but you can be pretty darn sick with it – for me, it’s like a bad case of food poisoning. Some people have no reaction, but the damage is still being done even though you can’t see it. Gluten damages the lining of the small intestine, thereby impeding the ability to absorb nutrients from food. So you can see why this might be a little bit of a problem.
I have had varying reactions in eating establishments to requests for gluten free food, from the eye-roll (usually results in them losing my custom pretty quickly) to the completely clueless, to the amazingly helpful and can’t do enough to help. I am aware that it’s an inconvenience for restaurants to have to cater for those of us who can’t always just eat what’s on the menu without question, and therefore I’m super grateful to those who are accommodating. But to hear a top chef like Michel Roux Jr. saying that it “gets his back up” and Monica Galetti chiming in about the inconvenience of getting lists of gluten free people as well as vegetarians to cater for, well, it makes me feel more reticent about dining out and asking for my dietary needs to be met. It makes me less trusting of chefs and restauranteurs – if that’s how they feel about their customers with special dietary needs, how can I trust them to be careful with my food and understand what needs to be done so I can eat there safely and not get sick? When there is such misinformation as this being peddled, how can I get it through to people that I have a real, medical condition that requires a gluten free diet and I’m not just another fussy eater? Should we be required to prove at the door that we’re the real deal? Do I need to graphically describe to skeptical servers and chefs exactly what will happen if they give me gluten, and come back to camp out in their facilities if I get sick to prove a point?
Food and Drink completely missed a trick here, because just because you have a food allergy, medical condition or yes, intolerance (some of them are real, yes indeed – lactase deficiency, anyone?) that you can’t be a foodie and you don’t enjoy food. Most of us want to enjoy the experience of dining out and eating nice food – we don’t go out stalking restaurants in groups to make a hobby out of making the life of restauranteurs harder. How about discussing how restaurants can provide varied menus, that mean that fewer adaptations are needed in the kitchen when someone comes in with an allergy or intolerance, thereby making it easier for busy chefs? How about clear allergen labelling on menus, so people know what they can order and don’t take up the waiting staff’s time having to ask about what they can eat? There are a whole host of ingredients out there that are naturally gluten free, no expensive specialist ingredients required. Would you believe it, there’s more to making great gluten-free food than costly pale packaged-Frankenfood imitations as low on nutrients as they are on taste. You’d think a couple of Michelin-star chefs would be able to knock something up without too much bother, wouldn’t you?
Maybe it’s time for them to retire from the restaurant trade if it’s that upsetting to have to cater for, you know, paying customers. Because if everybody with any sort of different dietary need had to stop eating out, as did their friends, colleagues and families, there wouldn’t be too many of those left to keep the restaurants afloat, would there? After watching this piece of crass and ill-informed television, I can only hold on to the good restaurants that I have visited over the years since my diagnosis, the ones who have welcomed me with open arms and never made me feel like an inconvenience or like I’ve “got their back up”.
As for William Sitwell, I just hope his iron constitution holds up as long as he wants his career in the foodie media to last. And don’t book me a table at Le Gavroche any time soon.
Series 2, Episode 9 of BBC Food and Drink can be seen on BBC iPlayer